Des Moines Water Works pushes upstream counties on ag drainage and water quality

Intent to sue doesn’t include Greene County, but it could

The Des Moines Water Works board of trustees announced Jan. 8 its intent to sue three Raccoon River counties for polluting the waterway. At the meeting, former Greene County resident Chris Wilbeck urged the board to add another county – Greene County – to the list.

A 60-day notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water Act and Iowa Code Chapter 455B has been sent to the boards of supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties. Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) has gathered independent data showing excessive nitrate levels in the Raccoon River contributed by 10 drainage districts in the summer of 2013 and the early winter months of 2014. The boards of supervisors in those counties serve as trustees for the drainage districts.

DMWW in a statement issued Thursday explained that the Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate at 10 mg/L. DMWW is legally obligated to provide clean and safe drinking water that meets the standard. Water in the Raccoon River in Sac County has tested as high as 39.2 mg/L.

The treatment required to bring the water within the safe standard is costly. According to DMWW, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers were at a record high in 2013, the plant incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues.

“Des Moines Water Works is taking this decisive action to underscore that the degraded condition of our state’s source waters is a very real problem… The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a failure. Since its announcement, we have suffered through record nitrate concentrations in both the summer of 2013 and winter of 2014. It is simply not a credible approach to protect the public health of Iowans who rely on safe drinking water every day. We can no longer rely on voluntarism, rhetoric, and speculation to protect the waters of our state,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of DMWW in a statement issued Thursday. Click here for the complete statement: Des Moines Water Works Jan. 8

Wilbeck and her family lived in Washington Township in Greene County for 11 years. They moved to the Beaverdale neighborhood in Des Moines in the fall of 2013 after a long and tiring battle against a nearby CAFO.

“We had to move to Des Moines from our 10 acre dream home in Rippey because my family was threatened by the toxic air emitted from a 4800-head hog confinement built down the road. Now, my family will be threatened by drinking water polluted by the hundreds upon hundreds of hog confinements rubber-stamped by upstream county supervisors who rarely understand the permits they approve and aren’t held accountable for the consequences,” Wilbeck wrote in the letter she read at the meeting. “They need to become accountable for the permits they approve and the drainage districts they manage.”

Wilbeck said she whole heartedly supports the DMWW’s intent to sue upstream counties that send excessive nitrates down the Raccoon River. “In fact, I think you should add Greene County, with its 110 drainage districts, to your list of counties to monitor and sue,” Wilbeck said. Click here to read the complete letter: Wilbeck to DMWW

Nitrate levels in the Raccoon River are monitored by the US Geologic Survey (USGS) at many locations, including a site near the bridge on the south edge of Jefferson. The data collected is available to the public on the USGS website.

During the spring and summer of 2013, the nitrate/nitrite level at Jefferson was above 10 mg/L from April 13 through July 23, peaking at 30.02 on May 6.

The nitrate/nitrite level crossed the 10.0 threshold Aug. 29, 2014, and has not yet fallen back within the allowed range. On Jan. 8, the level was 20.9 in Jefferson.

Why not Greene County? Stowe explained on Monday in a GreeneCountyNewsOnline interview that Greene County very easily could be included in the intent to sue notice. “Realistically, we could have included every county in the Raccoon River valley, including Greene County,” he said.

It was a matter of focusing limited resources in a location where data could be gathered efficiently, he said. DMWW staff was able to test water weekly in Sac County from March 16 through the end of December. That data was corroborated by USGS data. The Sac County data comes from only agricultural drainage outlets that are not linked to any permitted use like a city waste water plant or a golf course. The data is generated solely by agricultural land use, Stowe said.

He said public access was a factor in determining where the testing was done. In looking for test sites, the best alignment was in Sac County. Buena Vista and Calhoun counties were named because of joint drainage districts with Sac County.

The goal of filing the intent to sue is to call for regulating drainage districts for better water quality, Stowe said.

“We are not seeking to change agriculture methods, but rather challenging government to better manage and control drainage infrastructure in order to improve water quality within the state. Water quality improvements in Iowa demand accountability for protecting against water degradation by all sectors, including local governments and agriculture,” said Stowe in the prepared DMWW statement. “Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like any other point source contributor.”

The trustees of the 10 drainage districts named in the intent to sue must cease discharging pollutants without permits or act within 60 days to correct the ongoing violations. The next step for DMWW would be to seek relief in federal court under the Clean Water Act and Iowa code citizen suit provisions. Those laws require that point sources discharging into rivers have permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

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